February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

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February 4, 2010

Monotheism By Numbers?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , , , , , , , at 7:15 pm by Jeremy

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottéro

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001

Elsewhere on this blog, I argue that dualism and monotheism have caused a profound change in our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years.  Underlying the monotheistic/dualistic thought pattern is the notion that two different dimensions exist: a worldly dimension of the body, and an eternal dimension of the soul.  If my argument is correct, then prior to the advent of Platonic dualism and Judeo-Christian monotheism, people around the world must have viewed their cosmos with blurrier distinctions, not conceiving of two utterly different dimensions.

Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is an authoritative but accessible assessment of one of the major worldviews that existed before the advent of dualism and monotheism.  Bottéro is “one of the world’s foremost experts on Assyriology,” having studied it for over fifty years and the book certainly delivers on its title, reviewing Mesopotamian religion from the perspectives of religious sentiments, conceptual representations, and behaviors.

So, does Bottéro’s review support my position?  I think it does, especially when you compare some of the themes he describes in Mesopotamia to the contemporary religious worldview in Ancient Egypt.  Although these two civilizations come from very different traditions, it’s fascinating to see how some of the underlying structural aspects of their worldviews are at the same time so similar to each other, and so fundamentally different from the later monotheism of Christianity.

One of the intriguing dynamics shared by both Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tendency to pray to a particular god as if he or she were the only god, or at least the only god that mattered.  This is known either as “monolatry” (from the Greek “single worship”) or “henotheism” (from the Greek “one god”).  Bottéro describes it as “a profound tendency… to encapsulate all sacred potential into the particular divine personality whom [the Mesopotamians] were addressing at a given moment.” He gives a few examples:

Anu was ‘the prince of the gods,’ but so was Sîn.  The ‘Word’ of each god was ‘preponderant’ and ‘was to be taken above those of the other gods,’ who were subjected to it, ‘trembling.’  Each god was ‘the ruler of Heaven and Earth,’ ‘sublime throughout the universe,’ supreme and ‘unequaled’.

Over in Egypt, they were doing just the same thing.  Egyptian scholar Erik Hornung describes how, “in the act of worship, whether it be in prayer, hymn of praise, or ethical attachment and obligation, the Egyptians single out one god, who for them at that moment signifies everything.”[1]

At first sight, this seems like a form of proto-monotheism, but Bottéro takes pains to deny that, asserting that “contrary to what has sometimes been believed… a true monotheism could scarcely be born out of this religion, which assuredly never ceased to intelligently rationalize and organize its polytheism, and which, in truth… never departed from it.”

One of the crucial ways in which Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies – indeed the cosmologies of every historic polytheistic culture worldwide – differed from monotheism was their acceptance of the gods of other cultures.  This goes beyond the notion of religious tolerance.  It was inconceivable to either the Mesopotamians or Egyptians to question the existence of another region’s gods.  Gods presided over specific areas, so it was quite consistent with polytheistic beliefs to worship your own gods even while your neighbors – and perhaps your enemies – were worshiping theirs.  Bottéro gives a helpful analogy, comparing this view to how we might think of political offices in the modern world:

The foreign pantheons were tacitly considered as what they were: the product of different cultures, with their members playing a role analogous to that played by the indigenous gods of Mesopotamia.  It was as if, on the supernatural level, they had recognized the existence of a certain number of divine functions, of which the titularies bore, depending on the lands and the cultures, different names and personalities – a bit like political offices, which were pretty much the same everywhere; only their names were different, as were those of the individuals who held the offices.

With this analogy, we can see how denying the existence of another region’s gods would be as nonsensical as Hillary Clinton traveling to China and denying that they have a Communist party.  Again, the Egyptians shared the same mindset.  Egyptian scholar Jan Assmann tells us how:

The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship.  The distinction I am speaking of [monotheistic true/false] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.[2]

Perhaps the most subtle yet profound disconnect between early polytheistic worldviews and monotheism was their lack of sharp distinctions between the realms of human and divine.  Gilgamesh was a mortal, an ancient king of Mesopotamia, and yet his parents, Lugalbanda and Ninsuna, were semi-divine.  The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “two-thirds of him is god; one-third of him is human,” leading Bottéro to conclude that “the notion of ‘divinity’ was somewhat ‘elastic.’”  Once again, over in Egypt, Assmann tells us, we see an “interpenetration of the cosmic, the sociopolitical, and the individual,” such that “the Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature.”

If monotheism represents such a vast disconnect from previous polytheistic thought, it’s reasonable to ask what were the underlying factors that led to this great shift.  My proposal is that certain functions mediated by the human prefrontal cortex – the capacity for abstraction and symbolization – gained increased prominence in our collective consciousness until they became values in themselves: the pure abstraction of an eternal, infinite God.  Interestingly, Bottéro identifies the seeds of this transformation in Mesopotamian culture: not in their polytheism, but rather in their attribution of divine value to their number system.

Bottéro notes how the number 60, the “supreme round number” (the Babylonians used the decimo-sexagesimal system), was attributed to Anu, “the supreme chief of the divine dynasty”, and 30 to Sîn, the moon god.  He explains how they were evaluating the divine nature of the gods by “assigning them the most immaterial and abstract concepts, the least ‘tangible’ they had available – numbers – as if they knew that to speak righteously of the gods it was necessary, insofar as was possible, to go beyond the material and carnal reality of humans.”

This “attempt to stress both the transcendence and the mystery of the supernatural world” might possibly be seen as a precursor to the Pythagorean assignment of transcendent meaning to numbers, which became a foundation for Plato’s dualistic worldview.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


[1] Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

November 18, 2009

A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 4:18 pm by Jeremy

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato fired the first shot across the bow in the debate that – to this very day – structures how we view our world.  He was arguing against the earliest known thinkers of the classical Greek world called the Presocratic philosophers, some of whom had come up with notions that we would regard as quite modern even today: for example, that the whole cosmos can be broken down to tiny particles of atoms, colliding mechanically with each other.

Plato hated this so much that he proposed five years of solitary confinement for people who held these opinions, followed by death if they hadn’t reformed.  What got Plato so riled up?  It was, in his own words, the notion that:

By nature and by chance, they say, fire and water and earth and air all exist – none of them exist by art – and … the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were generated by these totally soulless means… not by intelligence, they say, nor by a god, nor by art, but … by nature and by chance.[1]

Plato was railing against the mindset that’s currently known as “reductionism” – the notion that everything in the universe, no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem – can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes.  And Plato’s response to this was, again, something very familiar to us: he posited another dimension, a dimension of the soul, a dimension of eternal ideals, which existed apart from the material, everyday world, and somehow infused it with meaning and spirit.  This is the Platonic dualism which underlies our Western tradition of thought (discussed in another post).

Science scans the universe but doesn't find God

Many people still accept the prevailing dualism and lock into the construct of an external God and an immortal soul within us which will join Him in heaven some day.  But this belief structure is under ever increasing empirical pressure from a scientific methodology that scans the brain and finds no place for the immortal soul, that scans the universe and finds no place for God.

Consequently, many others in today’s world have switched to the reductionism of science, summarized so clearly by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[2]

But this approach delivers a world devoid of meaning, as described by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”[3]

No wonder that so many of us would empathize with the deeply felt existential longing of biologist Ursula Goodenough, as she confides her inner fears:

… all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics…  My body is some 10 trillion cells.  Period.  My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane.  My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells.  I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  I believe that the choice between reductionism and dualism is a false choice.  I propose that it’s perfectly possible to embrace both science and spirituality.  The premise underlying this proposal is that the coldly mechanical universe offered by reductionist science is plain wrong: it’s a simplifying metaphor that’s proven very powerful as a way to analyze and predict elements of the natural world.  But it’s no more than a metaphor and its simplifying assumptions are beginning to limit what science can offer us in the 21st century and beyond.

In order to understand reductionism a little better, I’m going to look at the three leading versions of it in today’s world, which I call genetic reductionism, neurological reductionism, and spiritual reductionism.[4]

The great popularizer of genetic reductionism is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene.  As Dawkins describes it, genes are the irreducible unit of biological replication.  Genes are virtually immortal, and they use our bodies as the vehicle for their “selfish” purpose of replication:

… they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world… manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.[5]

DNA: the housing for the “selfish gene.”

For Dawkins and his followers, all evolution can be explained by the underlying power of the “selfish gene.”  But a growing number of biologists are showing that the selfish gene is, in fact, nothing more than a simplifying assumption, and an increasingly erroneous one, at that.  “We have taken,” says biologist Richard Strohman, “a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life.”  “The mistaken idea,” he explains, is “that complex behavior may be traced solely to genetic agents and their surrogate proteins without recourse to the properties originating from the complex and nonlinear interactions of these agents.”[6]

Ultimately, as philosopher Evan Thompson points out, the obsessive focus on the selfish gene is such bad science, it doesn’t even deserve the name:

This notion of information as something that preexists its own expression in the cell, and that is not affected by the developmental matrix of the organism and environment, is a reification that has no explanatory value.  It is informational idolatry and superstition, not science.[7]

Neurons: Crick’s view of the building blocks of our humanity.

What about neurological reductionism, the view summarized so well by Francis Crick, that “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[8]?  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the most salient aspect of our consciousness: its dynamic, ongoing self-organization.  Even if you could map out every neuron in the brain and analyze each one, molecule by molecule, you wouldn’t even come close to explaining consciousness, because it’s the complex, dynamic patterns formed  by their interactions that cause us to be who we are.  “In cognitive neuroscience,” writes neurobiologist A.K. Engel, “we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift.”  Classical views of the mind as a passively programmed computer are inconsistent with modern findings.  “Current approaches emphasize the intimate relationship between cognition and action that is apparent in the real-world interactions of the brain and the rich dynamics of neuronal networks.”[9]

Mind is not the “pack of neurons” described by Crick and others.  It’s only when we try to understand it for what it is, “a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the … dynamic patterns of the brain,”[10] that we can make real progress.  As neuroscientist Scott Kelso puts it: “Instead of trying to reduce biology and psychology to chemistry and physics, the task now is to extend our physical understanding of the organization of living things.”[11]

Which takes us to spiritual reductionism, the dead-end view described by Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry that “man is nothing but a material object, having none but physical properties” and therefore “Science can give a complete account of man in purely physicochemical terms.”[12] What this view misses is the same principle that the other two forms of reductionism also miss: that we can only begin to understand the nature of complex systems – cells, organisms, even consciousness – when we focus on the ongoing, dynamic patterns of interactivity formed by these systems, rather than just the molecules, neurons and genes of which these systems are composed.

And when you begin looking at these interactions, something transformative happens: the emergent patterns caused by these complex systems affect the very system itself, causing an even greater spiraling of complexity.  This is known as “circular causality” or “downward causation.”  Biologist Brian Goodwin summarizes this dynamic as follows:

The important properties of these complex systems are found less in what they are made of than in the way the parts are related to one another and the dynamic organization of the whole – their relational order… To understand these complex nonlinear dynamic systems it is necessary to study both the whole and its parts, and to be prepared for surprises due to the emergence of unexpected behavior…  In this sense the study of complex systems goes beyond reductionism, which focuses on the analysis of the components out of which a system is made.[13]

There are still many scientists, grounded in reductionist thinking, who like to dismiss these approaches as somehow unscientific or even “mystical”.  That’s getting to be an increasingly difficult position to hold, as more and more scientific fields embrace the approaches of dynamical complexity theory to make inroads into their thorniest problems.  Solé & Goodwin describe the current situation:

The concept of emergence, once regarded by many biologists as a vague and mystical concept with dangerous vitalist connotations, is now the central focus of the sciences of complexity.  Here the question is, How can systems made up of components whose properties we understand well give rise to phenomena that are quite unexpected?  Life is the most dramatic manifestation of this process, the domain of emergence par excellence.  But the new sciences unite biology with physics in a manner that allows us to see the creative fabric of natural process as a single dynamic unfolding.

-Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry: an early proponent of emergence theory.

Reductionism, in its falsely compelling rigor, tells us “we’re all just nothing but… and that’s all there is.”  Dualism, in contrast, posits an entirely different dimension of divinity and soul, and gives us the choice of taking it on faith, or falling back to the hard, cold ground of reductionism.  However, when the full implications of the dynamics of complexity and emergence are understood, then, in the words of Roger Sperry, “the very nature of science itself is changed.”  Science no longer needs to be the voice of spiritual despair.  When science embraces dynamic complexity, as Sperry elaborates:

In the eyes of science… man’s creator becomes the vast interwoven fabric of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high-energy subnuclear particles to galaxies, not forgetting the causal properties that govern brain function and behavior at individual and social levels.[14]

“Thus we have,” says complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, “the first glimmerings of a new scientific worldview, beyond reductionism.  In our universe emergence is real, and there is ceaseless, stunning creativity that has given rise to our biosphere, our humanity, and our history.  We are partial co-creators of this emergent creativity.”[15]

I’m going to explore this theme, which I think will be central to the search for authentic meaning in the 21st century, in the sister blog to this one, called Finding the Li.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a thought from Heraclitus, perhaps the first Western complexity theorist and ironically one of those Presocratic philosophers that Plato wanted to throw in jail:

For wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.[16]


[1] Cited in Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 23-4

[2] Crick, F., (1995), Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.  Scribner.

[3] Quoted by Kauffman, S., (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

[4] Ironically, the original form of reductionism from physics, “we’re all nothing but atoms”, has dissolved in the quagmire of “spooky” quantum mechanics and string theory, only to re-emerge in the biological sciences.  For a history of this shift, see Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”.  Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews,  pp. 173-186.

[5] Dawkins, R. (1976/2006).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Strohman, R. C. (1997). “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology.” Nature Biotechnology, 15(March 1997), 194-200.

[7] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[8] Crick, F., (1995) op. cit.

[9] Engel, A. K., Fries, P., and Singer, W. (2001). “Dynamic Predictions: Oscillations and Synchrony in Top-Down Processing.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2(October 2001), 704-716.

[10] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[11] Kelso, op. cit.

[12] Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206.

[13] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[14] Sperry, R. W. (1981). “Changing Priorities.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1981(4), 1-15.

[15] Kauffman, S. (2007). “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred.” Zygon, 903-14.

[16] Cited by Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.

November 4, 2009

Infinition: Our acceleration to the infinite

Posted in Infinition, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , at 6:07 pm by Jeremy

“Our existence resembles the course of a man running down a mountain who would fall over if he tried to stop and can stay on his feet only by running on.”[1] So said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer over a hundred years ago.  He’d be amazed how his prediction has played out.  By now, the human race is taking off from that mountain.  But the underlying dynamic remains the same: we have to keep going faster and faster to avoid crashing.

Atlantis_taking_off_on_STS-27

Infinition: our prefrontal cortex-driven conceptual consciousness is taking off

What this means in global terms is only too apparent: the impact of our technology-driven civilization threatens the world’s climate stability – and any eventual solution is likely to require even more technology.  But the ever accelerating speed of human existence applies equally to our individual humanity.  Our conceptual consciousness (that unique attribute of our prefrontal cortex) is forging its own path away from our animate consciousness at an ever increasing speed.  I call this dynamic the acceleration to the infinite, or infinition.

In Western culture, the drive towards the infinite has been inextricably linked with our dualistic sense of a  soul or mind[2], that abstraction of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) perceived to have a separate existence from our “miserable” material bodies, which have a habit of getting old, dying, and wasting away.  It’s amazing to see how the idea of the eternal soul (the evolution of which I discuss in another post,)  is morphing in the 21st century into the notion of an eternal mind/computer interface.

Futurists write breathlessly of the fast approaching moment when computers become more intelligent than humans.  With their religious-like zeal, people who call themselves “transhumanists” are taking the pfc’s idea of its own immortality to a new dimension, blending metaphor with reality as they speak longingly of the merger of man and machine.  In the words of technologist Ramez Naam,

Playing God’ is actually the highest expression of human nature.  The urges to improve ourselves, to master our environment, and to set our children on the best path possible have been the fundamental driving forces of all of human history.  Without these urges to ‘play God’, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist today.[3]

the rapture

"The Rapture" as envisaged in the Christian tradition

I’m certainly not the first person to see this linkage of Western body/soul dualism and modern transhumanism.  In an interesting 2008 article entitled Waiting for the Rapture, Glenn Zorpette compares modern “singularitarians”[4] believing in a future when you can “upload your consciousness”, with those who, over the ages, have “yearned to transcend death.”  In his words, we’re witnessing the “rapture of the geeks.”

And in a prophetic article over twenty years ago, The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century, Morris Berman saw the home computer as “the modern fulfillment of the Gnostic vision,” warning that our culture is acquiring a “computer consciousness… disembodied, a form of pure mental process.” [5]

These observations are not just metaphors.  Our human brains really are, bit by bit, becoming more like the computers they created.  In a 2008 study, Small & Vorgan report how Internet usage causes increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the pfc that mediates abstract concepts, while “the pathways for human interaction and communication weaken as customary one-on-one people skills atrophy.”[6]

Cultured neurons

Cultured neurons placed onto a multi-electrode array (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)

And at the other end of the spectrum, we can already see the first traces of a future merger of man and machine.  A 2008 article in Science Daily reports on a robot developed in England “which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons.”  It’s early days yet, but the borders between silicon-based artificial intelligence and cellular-based human intelligence are beginning to get a little blurry.

There are some who just can’t wait for this moment when mind and machine become one – the so-called “singularity.”  Perhaps the most mystical of these is the technologist, Raymond Kurzweil.  For Kurzweil, the mind/body dualism is clear.  Bodies die.  That’s bad.  If you want to live forever, get moving to that singularity as fast as you possibly can.   As he sees it:

Whereas some of my contemporaries may be satisfied to embrace aging gracefully as part of the cycle of life, that is not my view.  It may be ‘natural’, but I don’t see anything positive in losing my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, or any other human ability.  I view disease and death at any age as a calamity, as problems to be overcome.[7]

Kurzweil continues the age-old Platonic tradition as purely as if he were Plato himself.  For him,

…the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.  Our human intelligence and our technology form the cutting edge of this expanding intelligence.[8]

In Kurzweil’s Platonism, intelligence will one day literally make us God, as our computer/mind interface pervades the universe.  “In my view,” he says, “the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[9]

It might be easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a quixotic figure, tilting at the windmills of time, but there are plenty of other transhumanists following the same path, if a little less mystically.  And even within the Christian tradition, there have been influential modern thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, who held the belief that “the destiny of humans and human culture is to transcend the natural world and natural processes… as a way of liberating humans from Nature’s constraints.”[10]

This transcending of natural processes is the acceleration towards the infinite – or infinition – that I’m talking about.  And once we’ve taken off, there’s no going back.  English cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick warns ominously of the “slippery slope”:

There is a clear incentive to go down this path.  Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital.  Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling.  It is another one of those slippery slopes – there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.”[11]

I would argue that, in fact, we’ve been going along this path for hundreds of years, since the birth of the scientific mindset and its foundational ethic of exercising power over nature (described in another post.)  It’s an ethic described by nuclear scientist Freeman Dyson as “irresistible… an illusion of illimitable power… what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”[12]

So why complain about infinition if it really is capable of transcending our natural constraints?  It really depends on how you define your own humanity.  If you see yourself, deep down, as a mind inhabiting your body, then jump on board the Infinition Express.  But if you see your humanity as embodied, as part of the natural world, intertwined through 4 billion years of evolution with everything else around you, then there’s every reason to be concerned.  In the words of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas,

Surely it is our animal nature that recognizes the divinity of the natural world in all its mystery and beauty, despite the distressing habits and limited perception that afflict our species.  So perhaps our hope of redemption lies in the fact that we are animals, not that we are people.[13]

the organic worldview

The natural world: cornerstone of the "organic" worldview

There’s a profound conflict here, between an “organic” worldview and the worldview of infinition.  The organic view embraces the wonder of life, from the smallest microbe to humankind, seeing the same life force, the same “spirit”, the connectivity of all the living parts, integrating in complexity and harmony.  The force of infinition, by contrast, comes from the pfc.  Its very nature is non-organic.  Its view of the organic world is something apart, something to conquer, to control.  It’s the cause of the destruction we’ve wrought on the organic world.  And it will destroy our own organic existence unless we find a way to harness its power.  This is the true dualistic struggle: not between good and evil, not between body and soul, but between the organism and the abstraction, between our own organic existence and the power of our own pfc.  It’s the ultimate epic struggle of humanity.  And it’s a struggle in which each of us is one of the warriors.  We are all on the front line.

Is there a middle path, a way to reconcile this struggle, or are we destined on the one hand to take off into the stratosphere of infinition leaving our earthly home behind, or on the other hand to experience a dire collapse of civilization through overreaching?  I believe there may be a trajectory that, in effect, keeps us in earthly orbit, but in order to reach that trajectory, we have to find the path within ourselves that mediates between our conceptual and animate consciousness.  Each of us – as individuals – has to begin to define our own humanity not in terms of “pure mind living in a body” nor “pure animal afflicted by mind.”  Instead, we need to work towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness”, where our attention harmonizes with the never-ending dynamic between bodily impulses, abstract thoughts, and the vast realm in between.  Only if we re-integrate our own minds do we have any hope of bridging the chasm that has developed in our society between science and the spirit, between the “cybernetic dreams” of technology and the precarious beauty of our natural world.


[1] Quoted by Batchelor, S., (1994). The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley Parallax Press.

 

[2] What was viewed as the soul in Platonic and early Christian thought was largely transformed by Descartes into the modern view of the mind. See Macdonald, P. S. (2003). The History of the Concept of the Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

[3] Quoted by Kurzweil, R., (2005). The Singularity Is Near. New York: Penguin Books.

[4] Called such because they believe in a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will transcend the human mind.

[5] Berman, M. (Spring 1986). “The Cybernetic Dream of the Twenty-First Century.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24-51.

[6] Small, G., and Vorgan, G. (2008). “Meet Your iBrain: How the technologies that have become part of our daily lives are changing the way we think.” Scientific American Mind(October/November 2008), 43-49.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[9] Kurzweil, R. Op. cit.

[10] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications, pp. 292-4.

[11] Cited by Greenfield, S. (2003). Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, London: Penguin Books, p. 4.

[12] Cited by Joy, B. (2004). “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine(August 2004).

[13] Quoted by Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions and Heart, New York: Oxford University Press.